I remember my first trip to southern California many years ago. We visited some friends who lived out in the desert. I said to my husband, “I could never live here. There’s no life anywhere.”
Having grown up in the Mid-Atlantic, and then spent twenty years in the tropics of South Florida, the desert is foreign to me. I love trees and flowers and waterfalls and all things nature. The desert seems harsh and lifeless.
In many ways it is, but in many ways it’s not.
Since that first trip to California, I’ve homeschooled my children. One year, we did a unit on eco-systems and there we learned about all the life that exists in the desert. There are plants and animals and important microorganisms. Flowers too.
We were in Utah last week and explored the desert where I saw this life up close. As we hiked, I stopped to take photos of flowers popping up amidst the rocks and sand. The prickly pear cacti were in bloom; I spotted yellow, pink, and red blossoms. There were small trees whose trunks were twisted at odd angles. Lizards, chipmunks, and birds appeared from time to time. The rust colored rock formations had a beauty all their own, gleaming in the sun with ripples of green, purple, and black laced throughout.
Indeed, there is life in the desert.
It’s no coincidence that I read the book of Numbers in the weeks prior to our trip. The book of Numbers chronicles the Israelites’ journey through the desert wilderness. They too thought there was no life found in the desert. They searched for life but kept missing it. They grumbled and complained, thinking things were better in slavery back in Egypt.
“Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:4-6).
Yet all the while, Life was with them every step of the way:
“On the day that the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony. And at evening it was over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night.” (Numbers 9:15-16).
They refused to see the Life right in front of them. They refused to trust the One who delivered them from Egypt, brought them through the Red Sea, and provided all their needs. Multiple times they were nearly wiped out from existence because of their grumbling and disbelief, were it not for the efforts of their mediator, Moses, and the utter grace of God. Ultimately, their chronic disbelief and idolatry resulted in an entire generation missing out on the Promised Land.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that it was Christ, our ultimate and final Mediator, who was with them in the wilderness:
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our father were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).
The Christian life is one of wandering. In some of our wanderings, we find ourselves in the desert where life is harsh, and the terrain is hard. We may be spiritually parched and desire to return to our former life of slavery—at least there we know what to expect. We may think the desert is Life-less and are tempted to find it on our own, creating our own versions of false-life in counterfeit substitutes. We may even despair and think the desert will destroy us.
Paul cautions us in 1 Corinthians to read the Israelite’s wanderings in the Old Testament and learn from them. To heed the warnings found there. To remember that we are prone to the same grumbling, the same idolatry, the same disbelief. “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (10:6).
And above all, to not miss out on the Life that is always with us. We are never alone in our desert wanderings. Christ, who is our Life, is with us. He has wandered the desert before us, meeting every temptation with his perfect righteousness. He provides access to God’s grace through his blood shed on the cross for our sin. He nourishes and sustains us through his Life-giving Spirit. He is the manna and the wellspring that will never run dry.
Friends, if you are wandering in the desert, look to Christ. He is Life in the desert.